Gustave Flaubert, best known for his masterpiece Madame Bovary, spent nearly thirty years working on a surreal and largely ‘unreadable’ retelling of the temptation of Saint Anthony. It was only in the dark and compelling illustrations of Odilon Redon, made years later, that Flaubert’s strangest work finally came to life.
Colin Dickey explains in the Public Domain Review:
In the fall of 1849, Gustave Flaubert invited his two closest friends—Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp—to hear a reading of what he believed was to be his masterpiece: a retelling of the temptation of St. Anthony. The 30 year-old writer had been working on it for four years, and he was excited to finally share it with the two men whose opinion he trusted more than anyone else. Bouilhet and du Camp were likewise excited; they both knew of his extraordinary potential, and were anxious to hear this masterwork that had so fully consumed him. He read the entire five hundred and forty-one pages straight through: eight hours a day in uninterrupted four-hour blocks of time, for four solid days. Bouilhet and du Camp would later remember it as the most painful days in their lives, as they listened to an endless morass of words that was alternately incomprehensible, banal, repetitive and childish. After it was over, they did their best to put a good face on it, and to let him down easy; Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, “We think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.”
“Instead of continuing to work on the Temptation, they challenged him instead to write something completely devoid of romanticism and symbolism—something instead minutely detailed, objectively reported, as in the vein of Balzac. And so Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, the book that changed not only his life but changed forever contemporary literature—and which, one could say, was the result of something crossed between a dare and a punishment.
And still, Flaubert never gave up on the Temptation. He rewrote it three times over the course of his life, spending close to three decades trying to get it right, finally publishing it in 1874. Even as he was writing Sentimental Education, Salammbô, and Bouvard and Pécuchet, he never forgot it, and yet it cannot begin to compare to those other works. The Temptation was the ghost lingering behind all of Flaubert’s better works; in the words of Michel Foucault, “The Temptation seems to represent Flaubert’s unattainable dream: what he wanted his works to be — supple, silky, delicate, spontaneous, harmoniously revealed through rapturous phrases — but also what they must never be if they were to see the light of day.” It became the thing he returned to time and time again, always the antithesis of his great writing, and it stood in stark opposition to the works by which he is now mostly known.”
[Odilon] Redon (1840-1916) had been working in lithography since around 1870, developing a singular style that anticipated both the decadent symbolism of the late nineteenth century and the modernism of the early twentieth. Redon’s milieu borrowed largely from the gothic folktales of his childhood, to which he borrowed a pictorial vocabulary from an unlikely place: the grotesque cartoons of political satire, with its half-politician half-animal hybrids, its exaggerated facial features and deformities, and the tone of decadent depravity.
Redon had been working for over a decade when the third and final version of Flaubert’s Temptation was finally published; “It is a literary marvel and a mine for me,” he wrote of the book, in which he saw an endless litany of bizarre figures and distorted creatures that he could adapt as inspiration. Their work formed a natural kinship; as Stephen F. Eisenman comments, “Like Flaubert, Redon saw himself as unique, an accident, a monster, and all the more remarkable an artist for these very reasons.”
Redon began producing a series of plates based on the Temptation, work which finally unlocked the strangeness and decadent symbolism that Flaubert had dreamt of but which he could never quite evoke on the page.
Read more and see the images at the link below